Fat Gully slid into the city like an eel into a coral reef, steering his round body through the nooks and crannies of the crowd with an adroitness that Martin both hated and admired. It was just another reminder that he could not allow himself to be fooled by this squat little man, by his ungainly frame. He was a quick, murderous little villain.
The port was alive with its usual pitched debauchery. It was a ghastly place. Martin did not know its name and doubted something so wretched had ever troubled to acquire one. It was a confusion of noise and stinks: roaring and howling, gunpowder and piss. Taverns spilled with light. Women were passed about like drinking mugs from one lecherous grotesque to another — some seemed to enjoy it as much as the men, though perhaps that was only a side effect of hard drink; others wore the flat, affectless expressions he had seen on his first visit to a Farm, hidden away in the slums of St. Giles, back in London. Black faces abounded here; he’d heard that some were even free, though he found that hard to credit. A black man was as alien to Martin’s experience as a crocodile or a camel, and he found himself staring even as Gully hustled him along.
A dim glow marked the docks: fires and lanterns alight on shore, ship windows radiant as business was conducted within. The masts were like pikes struck into the earth — they gave an odd appearance of order beside the lurching little town.
Gully shouldered aside a man nearly double his size as he crossed the muddy street, and made his way for a two story wooden structure alongside the docks. It was clearly an inn, and a busy one at that, but there was little noise coming from inside. Martin looked for a name but, like the town itself, it seemed to have remained unchristened.
The room was close and hot. Several small round tables made up a kind of dining area; an arched doorway led into a kitchen where dim forms toiled. A fire grumbled to itself in the vast, grimy hearth. The flue was insufficient to its task, and black, oily smoke trickled up the wall and gathered like an ill portent on the ceiling.
Mr. Gully approached a table of three men, centrally located in the dining area. His demeanor was much reduced, and when he spoke, it was with none of his usual bluster.
“I brung him, Captain Beverly,” he said. “Like what I said.”
Martin knew the men immediately for what they were: pirates. They were not likely to be anything else, here in Tortuga, but the shabbiness of their bearing would have made it plain besides. The man on the right was older, his gray beard hacked short and his face a jigsaw puzzle of scars. One eye sat dully in its socket like a boiled quail’s egg, dull and yellowed. The man on the left was slender, almost boyish, his skin the soft brown of rain-darkened wood. Between them was Captain Beverly: incongruously handsome, though long unwashed, with shaggy blonde hair and a beard that had last seen a razor when King Charles himself had been a boy, or so Martin figured. All of them wore loose-fitting clothing and all of them were armed with steel. The younger man also held a blunderbuss between his knees, which his fingers tapped across with nervous energy.
“Oh my my, look at the pretty little thing,” the captain said, and the older man offered a chuckle.
Martin stood ramrod straight, determined to suffer whatever insults to his person were coming. He needed this passage. “Mr. Gully will have told you I have money,” he said.
“You’d better, Pretty. I wouldn’t want to think you’re wasting my time.”
When Martin just stood there, the captain spoke to Gully without troubling to look at him. “Ask the gentleman to produce the coin, Mr. Gully.”
Martin ignored Gully, whose face was a shadowy moon in the firelight, and withdrew his purse. He placed it onto the table, suddenly sure that one of them would cleave his fingers from his hand for the sport of it. When they did not, he removed his hand and let it rest steadily at his side.
The older man spilled the coins onto the table and counted them. The captain did not look at them at all. He kept his gaze fixed on Martin; he seemed happy, almost jovial. When his compatriot informed him that the money was sufficient, he waved a hand as though he was beyond such trifles.
“Mr. Gully tells me you’re bound for Nantucket,” he said.
“But I don’t want to go to Nantucket.”
“I don’t expect that you do. As far North as you are inclined to go should be quite sufficient, if you please.”
“Where do you come from, Pretty? From far away, I think.”
“I was born in Bristol. I sailed from London.”
“To what end, I wonder. Hm? A gentleman from the King’s good country, here in the savage clime, squandering his wealth.”
Martin wondered the same thing of the captain. He was an educated man; not at all what he’d been expecting.
“That is my own business, Captain. With respect.”
He sensed Gully stiffen beside him, but none of the seated men seemed to think anything of this minor rebuke.
“So it is, then, Pretty. See that your business does not interfere with mine, and perhaps we shall part as friends. Mr. Johns here will see you to your berth. My ship is The Lady Celeste and she is docked outside. Dishonor her and I’ll bury you at sea. Are we in agreement?”
Martin swallowed his pride. To be spoken to like that by a man of such low station — a thug who should be lapping water from the puddles in Newgate Prison — caused a pain that was nearly physical.
But Alice awaited him on the far side of this journey, and he could not afford the comforts of his station. Not now. But he would remember this wretch and he would see him suffer for this display, that he vowed.
“Yes, Captain. We are in agreement.”
Captain Beverly clasped his hand and gave it a vigorous shake. “Do let’s be friends, Pretty. Now follow Mr. Johns and perhaps I’ll join you later for a drink, and we shall tell wonderful stories of our youth, hm? Won’t that be lovely?”
The older, one-eyed man permitted himself another chuckle.
“Now forgive me, I’ve murder to do. I shall see you presently.”
He departed, the young dark-skinned man in tow. Mr. Johns, the old man with the dead eye, made no move to rise from his chair. “Sit yer arses down,” he said. “I mean to to be well drunk before I get back aboard that devil’s ship.”
Martin and Gully had no choice but to comply.
(illustrations by Jeremy Duncan)